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Thursday, June 29, 2006

When the FBI Raids the Times by Dennis Persica

To paraphrase Alice's walrus, the time has come to talk of scary things.

The New York Times has spurred the anger of the Bush administration by reporting on a program to monitor international banking transactions as part of the government’s counterterrorism program. Critics argue this is the equivalent of reporting on troop movements or disclosing the existence of secret weaponry. You don’t have to look too hard online to find posters of the World War II “loose lips sink ships” variety that pretty much blame the Times for the deaths of American soldiers.___ to Read the on "Print Article" below >>>

The National Review urged the administration to revoke the Times’ White House credentials. U.S. Rep Peter King, R-N.Y., said the Times should be brought up on charges of treason.

The current climate leads me to ponder a what-if scenario. One that I hope is as far-fetched as I believe it to be. But imagine the possibility suggested by the recent rhetorical attacks and threats of prosecution.

What if the U.S. Attorney’s office in New York—bolstered by a cadre of federal marshals or FBI agents—entered the offices of The New York Times, looking to rummage through the paper’s files and computers either to find the source of the leaks for the banking story or to make sure the Times isn’t about to publish another story allegedly damaging to national security?

In raising this possibility, I am not suggesting the administration would do this to shut down all news media and establish an authoritarian regime. Let’s just assume the government has good intentions—guarding the nation’s security—when it orders the raid. But historians and polemicists of all political stripes know that since the dawn of humanity the road to catastrophe has often been paved with good intentions.

Far-fetched? Remember, we are talking about an administration that has angered even some members of its own party in Congress with its my-way-or-the-highway approach. Republicans screamed the loudest when the FBI raided the office of Democratic Rep. William Jefferson (who, coincidentally, is my congressman). Critics say this administration has seized the powers of the imperial presidency and expanded them farther than ever before. There are echoes of the Cold War here, when we were engaged in a similar debate: To defeat the totalitarians of the Eastern Bloc, do we have to become more like them or can we win without sacrificing our democratic soul?

Conservatives have long warned citizens to be careful about what powers we allow the central government to arrogate because we’ll likely never recover what we’ve given up. Yet conservatives—and some not-so-conservative people—are up in arms over the fact that The New York Times and other newspapers have revealed major federal spying programs.

Consider the implications of this hypothetical scenario: Agents search the files inside The New York Times building. Perhaps some of those files are carted out; maybe even computer drives are taken. Such a scenario would make the Pentagon Papers dispute look like a minor disagreement among gentlemen. In that case, the government tried to stop the Times and other newspapers from printing a particular story. A raid, on the other hand, would shut down the entire paper. If it wanted to get really tough, the government could treat the Times as an enemy collaborator, seal off its headquarters and move toward seizing its assets.

Meanwhile, the administration could count on a portion of the blogosphere—as well as talk radio and cable TV personalities—to cheer on the raid.

Sure, other journalists would be outraged. But what could they do besides write a few editorials and columns? Perhaps a small majority of the American public would think the government had overstepped its bounds as well. But what can they do outside of expressing their opinions? Remember, we are talking about the power of the federal government arrayed against that of the press and the people. While the latter may win in the end, their victory will be a long time coming—if it comes at all. And there’s reason to be skeptical about the likelihood of ultimate victory. After all, the federal government has an arsenal of weapons—both figuratively and literally. And to be honest, I’ve never quite bought into the notion that the pen is mightier than the sword. Or the M16.

Since the days of Spiro Agnew’s “effete corps,” the press has been portrayed—with some success—as a liberal elite with a political axe to grind. Many of us in the media view these barbs as an occupational hazard. We are accustomed to being criticized for doing our jobs, so we tend to ignore the criticism if it strikes us as baseless.

But in recent years, the criticism has taken on an ominous tone. There are the famous statements by Ann Coulter about how Timothy McVeigh or the 9/11 plotters should have targeted The New York Times building. There was the ad I saw recently linking to a conservative website for t-shirts that featured a noose and some comment about journalists that I’ve since forgotten. I haven’t forgotten the implication, however.

This is more than just an attack on perceived bias; this is demonization. Journalists have now been caricatured as a group of people who are siding with a fanatical, barbaric enemy. Once Americans believe that, it then becomes easy to support our arrest.

Those who would grant the Bush administration extraordinary powers today must ask themselves whether they would be comfortable with the same authority in the hands of a President Clinton (Bill or Hillary), a President Kerry or a President Gore. That is one test of whether the grant of a certain power is a good idea: Are you comfortable with the government having that power no matter who is at the helm?

Let’s hope this scenario of raids on news outlets is nothing more than conjecture; one that can exist only in some made-up Bizarro World—a dark, hellish Wonderland of a society lacking the freedoms its leaders proclaim to uphold—and nothing that could ever happen in this America, our America.

Dennis Persica is a staff writer and editor at the Times-Picayune newspaper in New Orleans. He has worked at the daily newspaper for the last 20 years.

© 2006
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